Stirring Old Ghosts

For the bulk of this week, I have been setting myself a schedule for my writing. Between 1pm and 4pm I take myself out of the house – away from the television and the internet – to sit in a cafe and write.

I’ve had some success with this, and on days when I haven’t managed it – due to my travel to Stratford to soak myself in theatre – I found I missed it. I was glad to get back to my schedule today.

I’m working on two different pieces right now. I was hesitant to split my focus at first, but I’ve found that having the variety is actually helpful. When I’m stuck on one, I have something else to work on, while ideas about the first one have a chance to percolate without being forced.

Today, I spent the first hour reading through the diary I kept when I was about fourteen. That… was not an easy thing. I have to remember to be gentle with my younger self. Everyone is unbearable at that age, and things were complicated at home. I dug out the box of my old writings several weeks ago (and should I suddenly die, someone needs to promise they’ll set a torch to the lot of it) and I read through some of that same diary then. My conscious mind didn’t find anything in there to dwell on, and I thought I put it aside with equanimity. But my subconscious was so rumpled by the experience I ended up with the worst insomnia of my life. I didn’t get a proper night’s sleep for two or three days.

I’ve been hesitant to try again, but the piece that I’m writing was stuck until I did. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether the diary had the same effect again. I’m hoping that writing about what I read in there, as I did manage to do today, will help.

Mary Stuart

First of all: Oh. Dear. God.

Second of all: I would say run, don’t walk, to see the Stratford Festival’s production of Mary Stuart at the Tom Patterson Theatre, except that it has sold out its run, been extended by four weeks, and sold that out too.

I’ve wanted to see the show since the casting was announced last year, and it did not disappoint. Seana McKenna, as Queen Elizabeth, and Lucy Peacock, as Mary Queen of Scots, going head to head was a sight to see. I adore both of them, and would watch either or both of them read the phone book with complete delight. Here, as two of history’s most powerful women, they shone. And they were ably supported by a strong cast, including Ben Carlson and Geraint Wyn Davies, who are two more of my personal favourites.

I didn’t love the way the script dealt with Elizabeth, especially toward the end, but Seana McKenna had me absolutely riveted with her performance. And in a situation where these two queens were facing off, bound in conflict, the audience never picked sides. We loved both of them, empathised with both of them, and we were rooting for them to put aside their pride and come to some kind of understanding. All the while knowing how it would end.

The audience was on board from the beginning of the play. They laughed in all the right places, and there was a low, delighted tone to it, of absolute complicity. During the pivotal scenes, the audience was silent – no rustling, no fidgeting, no coughing. We hung on every word. And during Mary’s last rites… I gasped – actually gasped – when she came out with her head shorn, and I dripped tears into my lap as she said her goodbyes to her servants.

The man sitting next to me was, I discovered, a fellow theatre professional. And there were a couple of moments we shared, when I felt a low hum rising in my throat and then heard him next to me chuckle softly. Both were sounds of utter satisfaction at a piece of staging so perfect in its moment, so simple and yet so effective, that it took us with surprise and delight. I was in love as much with the staging, with the lighting, with the music, as I was with the performances. This was one of those rare productions where every single aspect hit the right note at the right time. This is what theatre is meant to be. It doesn’t need to be expensive razzle-dazzle. It just needs to be done well, and with love.

And Now for a Word

Yesterday, I went down to Word on the Street, which is a big outdoor book festival downtown. There was a distinct chill in the air, making sure we were aware it was the first day of fall. I was grateful for the moments when the sun came out from behind the cloud, warming me through my jacket.

I wandered between the stalls, browsing for the most part. I stopped to speak with all the different Can-Lit magazines I could find. Walked away with a few samples. I was very tempted by the subscription deals they were offering, but I just couldn’t afford to take them up on it just now.

The most memorable moment, though, was late in the afternoon, when we caught sight of a falcon in a tree in front of one of the university buildings. I’ve only ever seen them on ‘display’, working with trainers or zookeepers. I couldn’t quite compute seeing a wild one in the middle of the city.

It was huge, body the size of a goose or a swan, with thick, feathered legs and a powerful body. It was busy eating, beak snapping down to grab a mouthful and pulling up, holding its meal in place with one foot, the creature’s entrails stretching taut for a moment before they snapped and the falcon swallowed his mouthful.

And on the ground below it, the urban literati stared up, phones and cameras clicking away.

“It swooped down and grabbed a squirrel.”

I turned to find another onlooker behind me. I gave a wry smile. “Watch out for your kids.”

“And your pets. I’m sure there are chihuahuas around here about the size of a squirrel.”

“Oh, you’re right. Yikes.”

I walked away, then, and moved on through the festival. The circle of gawkers determined to turn this powerful creature into a spectacle made me uncomfortable.

Home Away From Home

This was a post I wrote yesterday, but didn’t get the chance to publish. I will, I hope, write a little bit about today’s trip down to Word on the Street at some point soon.

 

I am having a day. I’ve been having a day since yesterday, but yesterday was so filled with running around that I didn’t have the option of turning off my phone, shutting out the world and curling up on the couch with my cat, a blanket, a cup of tea and season two of Babylon 5. (Yes, I’m a geek, I find it comforting.)

One piece of the running around was that second date, a first in my online dating career. And for the length of the date, I was able to shut down the voices in my head. Today, though, it’s all back – I’m still caught in the guilt and recrimination of a friend’s passive-aggressive spin cycle.

When I couldn’t take sitting inside anymore I headed out for a walk in the rain. I browsed the local bookstore, but eventually found myself at the library, sitting on the floor between shelves, scanning the thick hardcover titles of the science fiction section, looking for a world to bring home with me. A place I could hide.

Each book had a thin plastic protector taped over its dust jacket, scratched and ragged around the edges. The rustle each book made as I pulled it off the shelf to read its blurb, the sweet, dusty smell, the warm quiet shared by scattered people – it was an atmosphere so familiar, so comforting, I settled right into a sense of peace. The first I’ve found in two days.

I felt a link, all the way back to my teenage self, when I lived in rural Ontario, in a blue house surrounded by trees, off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. On Saturdays, we drove in to the nearest town – 5,000 people and twenty minutes away by car – to buy groceries and rent videos. I went into the small, split-level library, down the half flight of stairs to the science fiction section in the basement. I sat cross-legged on the floor there, too, and found a stack of books to bring home to keep me company during the week. Sometimes old favourites, sometimes something new. There was a book called Oath of the Renunciates that I loved. There are books you read when you’re 14 that are powerful to you, that shape you, in a way no other books you read in your life can. That was one for me. The check-out card in the back had my name on it over and over again. No one else ever checked it out. I probably never gave them the chance.

Years later, when I was working the Edinburgh fringe festival and having a miserable time – in seven weeks of 12+ hour days, I got exactly three days off – and working for a company that was largely incompetent, I escaped to the local library on my break. Like all the other buildings in Edinburgh, it was built of grey stone. Inside, if you were standing to see above the shelves, there was a view of the castle through grimy windows set in deep window wells. Again, though, I sat on the floor in the science fiction section, full of the names and titles that were so familiar to me, surrounded by the smells and sounds of every library, everywhere, and I felt at home.

I haven’t been to my local library in ages, but I’m now determined to go back. Everyone needs a home away from home sometimes.

Jamie Oliver’s Asian-Inspired Turkey Salad

I was in the UK for four months earlier this year for work. There’s an ad on television there for Just Eat, which is a website that centralises take out food – you visit the one site and you can order food there from any of the restaurants that are a part of the scheme. Their slogan is “Don’t cook, just eat. Leave cooking to the professionals,” and in their ads, stereotypical ‘chefs’ from an assortment of restaurants (Italian, Japanese, Burger Joint, etc.) come to the houses of people who are cooking to stop them, usually with threat of physical violence.  Continue reading

Taken for a Ride

Now, I’m all about supporting independent stores. And I love that I live in a neighbourhood that still has a couple of small grocers and a butcher/delicatessen. I believe that Walmart is the devil, and a symptom of a lot of what is wrong with society.

But then there’s paying five bucks for a punnet of cherry tomatoes. Not a large punnet of cherry tomatoes. Not an organic punnet of cherry tomatoes. Just a punnet of cherry tomatoes. Five bucks. And it’s not even like it’s February. This is the middle of harvest time for crying out loud.

Next week I’ll go and investigate the local farmer’s market. I’m not really convinced that’s going to be a lot cheaper, though.

(6 + 4) * 2 – 1 / 18 + 1 = ?

There is a neat white 9″ x 12″ envelope sitting by my front door. I spent the afternoon getting one of my essays ready for submission and putting together a cover letter. It took longer than I expected to make sure I had name, address, and word count in all the right places and none of the wrong ones, and to set everything up with the correct font, spacing and margins. I swear the submissions guidelines for some of these magazines are designed as skill-testing questions.

This isn’t my first submission, but it’s the first one I’ve had to do in hard copy. Back in March I submitted a different essay to two magazines using Submittable. I have a matched pair of rejection letters for that one that I’m actually quite proud of.

The first one was the best possible rejection:

Thank you for submitting your Creative Non-fiction to [such-and-such] magazine. While we are unable to accept Character Sketch for publication, we would like to see more of your work.

Your work was almost there. We liked it, but felt it was not quite ready to be forwarded to an editor. We would like to encourage you, however, to send us more of your writing in the future. You can find out what themes might be under consideration by visiting our website.

We look forward to reading more of your work.

I’ve written two more drafts of the piece since then – they were absolutely right, it wasn’t ready yet – and I’m confident it’s getting closer. I’ll find a new home for it when I’m satisfied it’s good to go.

The other rejection was more generic:

Thank you for submitting your work to [such-and-other]. We have read and considered it, and have decided it isn’t right for the magazine.

Our editorial decisions have more to do with our own tastes and preferences than the quality of your submission, and we hope you find the right home for the work.

I knew the essay was borderline when I sent it. The piece is a lyric essay with a unique structure, and the magazine had occasionally published non-traditional essays, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It was gratifying to hear they didn’t think it was bad, just not right. I can totally live with that.

So yes. I’m ready to add to my collection of rejections. I’ll take my envelope to be mailed in the morning. And now, to work on the next piece.

Daydreaming Fail

Most of my morning was lost to standing in line at a government service desk waiting to update some paperwork. It was tedious, but at least not frustrating, as I didn’t have any particular deadline to get to anywhere else.

I realise my failure now, though, in simply staring off into space while I stood in line. If I’d been paying attention, I could have some pithy observation on human folly, or some deep conclusion about the futility of… something or other to write about now. I wasted a perfectly good opportunity for people-watching.

I will be a better blogger next time.

Signs of Dedication

I am not a morning person. And, in particular, I am not creative in the morning. When my schedule is flexible, my peak writing time is between 9pm and 2am. I’m not sure why, but that has been true since I was a teenager. Maybe it just takes a whole day of stimulus to wear my inner editor into submission, I don’t know.

Early yesterday morning, I got some notes back from my writing buddy about a piece I’m struggling with. This is a story I’m very fond of. And it’s not so much my beautiful prose that I’m attached to, but rather the fact that I’m writing about a time in my life that involved a whole soup kettle of emotions, and about a person at that time who was very important to me. My buddy’s comments were spot on, as well as being an exact echo of the comments I gave him on his current piece. So, clearly I should know better. Still, I was resistant. Because this is a story I’m very fond of.

My schedule had me running around all day yesterday, so the notes were left to percolate at the back of my brain. By the end of the day, when I sat down with a cup of hot chocolate and my laptop, I realised that I’ve received the same comments from three different people, now. That’s a clear sign that something isn’t working, so I sat down, determined to finally address the problem.

The hardest thing to let go of was the tone. There was a certain melancholy to the piece, a nostalgia, that I loved. It’s a feeling that permeates my memories of that time, and I worked hard to capture that in my writing. It was hard to accept that it was actually creating distance between the audience and the story.

So last night I sat down and shifted the whole thing into the present tense, something I had avoided on purpose in the previous draft. I rewrote or rearranged almost every section, and along the way I had a couple of revelatory moments – small fixes that addressed bigger problems.

I flamed out at midnight with two sections left to go. I knew I had to be at work today, so I couldn’t keep writing into the night, and my eyes were closing on me anyway. But. Today was the deadline to get stories in to be workshopped at my writers’ group this Wednesday. And I want the others to read this. I need to know whether I’m on the right track now.

So this morning, still in my pyjamas, I plunked myself back down in front of the laptop, bashed out the last two sections and mailed it off. All before breakfast.

I killed one of my darlings and I met my deadline. I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate this small triumph. It’s not easy in a busy world, so it’s worth crowing when we can.

Do you have a small triumph to crow about? Or a big one? Let’s congratulate each other, shall we?

The Things You Learn in Driveways

I found out this afternoon that my dad’s surgery went well. I found this out because I arrived at my father’s house to do a few errands for him as he was finishing up a conversation with his neighbour in the driveway.

“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re doing well,” Neighbour said. “Call me if you need anything.”

So, prospective tenants and neighbours get to know. Daughters, not so much.

I may sound it, but I’m not actually bitter. Or even surprised. This has been SOP in my family for a long time.

In other news, Neighbour had to call the OSPCA to come in and retrieve a sick raccoon from under his porch. My dad thinks it may have eaten the rat poison that the restaurant up the street puts out near its garbage.